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Ex-reporter told to reveal sources or pay daily fines

Judge's order comes in a lawsuit over articles linking researcher Steven Hatfill to 2001 anthrax attacks.

March 11, 2008|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Upping the ante in the fight between the press and the courts over confidential sources, a judge here has imposed daily fines on a former reporter for USA Today that could quickly bankrupt her unless she reveals all of her sources at the Justice Department and the FBI.

Toni Locy, who now teaches journalism at West Virginia University, faces a $500 daily fine beginning at midnight. Next week, the fines will go up to $1,000 per day, then to $5,000 a day the week after.

"I don't have that kind of money," she said Monday.

The judge has prohibited her friends, family and former employers from helping her pay the fines.

But lawyers for Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, the biowarfare expert who came under investigation after the mysterious wave of anthrax attacks in 2001, said Locy can spare herself by telling the full truth.

"We hope it [the judge's order] hastens the day when the media returns to exposing, rather than covering up, wrongdoing on the anthrax investigation," said Patrick P. O'Donnell, whose Washington law firm represents Hatfill in his lawsuit against the Justice Department.

In recent years, judges have taken an increasingly hard line against reporters who refuse to cooperate with prosecutors or plaintiffs who are pursuing a civil suit against the government.

In this case, Hatfill sued the Justice Department for leaking information that damaged his reputation. In August 2002, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft called Hatfill a "person of interest" in the unsolved anthrax case, which sent reporters and camera crews in pursuit of the former government scientist.

Subsequent news stories cited unidentified persons in the FBI or Justice Department who described Hatfill's background -- including, for example, his research on bio-toxins at Ft. Detrick in Maryland.

But Hatfill was never charged in the anthrax case, despite what has been described as the largest investigation in the FBI's history.

When government officials refused to help with his lawsuit, his lawyers turned to the reporters who wrote about the case.

In May and June 2003, Locy wrote two articles about the continuing investigation of Hatfill. She described the reports as routine.

"These were just wrap-up stories. They were not scoops. I was skeptical of what the government was doing to Hatfill," Locy said. "Hatfill's lawyer told me his client was still under surveillance. And I called some people at the FBI to confirm the details."

But Locy has steadfastly refused to disclose the names of every person she talked to. She says she does not recall who supplied information for the Hatfill story.

At that, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ordered her to disclose the names of all of her confidential sources within the Justice Department.

Several other reporters have cooperated with Hatfill's lawyers.

"We have identified three of the leakers who were previously anonymous," Mark A. Grannis, an attorney for Hatfill, told Walton in January. Grannis named Roscoe C. Howard Jr., the former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia; Daniel S. Seikaly, who headed the criminal division under Howard; and former FBI spokesman Edwin Cogswell.

Despite that revelation, Walton pressed ahead to fine Locy for refusing to cooperate. In Friday's order, he said she must "personally pay the monetary sanction. . . . The court will preclude Ms. Locy from accepting reimbursement to satisfy the monetary sanction imposed by the court."

On Monday, 29 major news organizations, including the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, joined with Locy's lawyer in urging an appeals court to intervene and to put Walton's order on hold. "No court has previously issued such a punitive, financially ruinous order against a journalist, merely for asserting constitutional and common law privileges," said the organization's lawyers.

It is not clear, however, whether the 1st Amendment or federal law provides protection for reporters who defy a judge's orders in such cases.

Most states shield reporters from disclosing confidential sources.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a federal shield law for reporters, and a similar measure is pending in the Senate.

Two years ago, five news organizations, including The Times, paid to settle a somewhat similar suit brought by Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who had been identified in news reports as the target of an espionage investigation.

He sued the U.S. Department of Energy for leaking damaging information about him, and his lawyers pressed reporters to reveal who had disclosed the information to them.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she worried that the Hatfill case was moving in the same direction.

"I think this is verging on a shakedown of the media," she said. "The judge might want to see all the media companies pitch in and settle this case. If so, that is a frightening scenario because they didn't do anything wrong. They were just covering one of the most important stories of our time."

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david.savage@latimes.com

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